Melissa McCarthy is a lock for a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of Lee Israel, a lonely, embittered author of celebrity biographies who took up forgery to pay the bills when her jobs dried up. The Academy previously rewarded McCarthy with a Best Supporting Actress nod for 2011’s Bridesmaids, the kind of raucous comedy that became her specialty. McCarthy gets laughs for sure here, but the demands of this role — a boozy, cranky woman with a battered heart and a backbone of steel — are primarily dramatic. McCarthy meets every challenge. She’s a dynamo firing on all cylinders.
Director Marielle Heller, who made a triumphant debut with 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, scores again here. She steeps the movie in the atmospheric flavor of early-1990s Manhattan that reminds you of vintage Woody Allen films and Seinfeld. From park benches, diners and seedy bars to Lee’s rundown, Upper West Side apartment, everything feels lived in — right down to the cat turds under the couch. Lee lavishes attention on that sick feline, but the rest of the world gets tasered by her toxic tongue. At a New York party thrown by her put-upon agent (how great to see Jane Curtin again), the author takes the piss out of everyone in sight, especially the bestselling macho novelist Tom Clancy. “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” she sasses.
It’s while at the library researching a book on Fanny Brice — one that no publisher wants — that Lee finds two letters, written by the Funny Girl herself, hidden between the pages of an old tome. Discovering that she can sell them for a few bucks at a local bookstore run by her friend Anna (Dolly Wells), the ex-biographer embarks on her new career as a literary forger. Finding the market value increases if the letters are lively, she uses her own creative writing skills to improve on the letters of such luminaries as Noel Coward and Lillian Hellman. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she gloats. Suddenly, the woman is in business, selling faux correspondence galore to an unsuspecting collector (Stephen Spinella). She’s so successful that she takes on a partner in crime in fellow barfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay Brit raconteur who can charm the harder cases (like a seedy blackmailer played by McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone). He knows his worth: “Do not underestimate sparking blues eyes and a little bit of street smarts.”
McCarthy’s beguiling scenes with Grant lift the film over the hurdles of repetition as Lee and Jack ply their illegal trade in the hope that buyers and the FBI won’t catch up to them. At least, not just yet. Grant (Withnail & I) hasn’t had this juicy a role to feast on in years. He’s simply sublime. Still, the film belongs to McCarthy, who reveals Lee’s secret heart without resorting to bullshit Hollywood sentiment. On a promising first date with Anna, she ruins everything by retreating into her emotional armor. And her reunion with a former lover (Anna Deavere Smith), who understandably won’t take her back, is a study in self sabotage.
Lee, who died in 2014 at age 75, had the last laugh by turning her FBI capture — after a three-year scam in which she forged more than 400 letters — into a bestseller called Can You Ever Forgive Me? “I still consider the letters,” Israel wrote, “to be my best work.” (She’d undoubtedly like the movie version at least as much.) There’s not an ounce of sitcom aggression in the script that Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty have carved out of her memoir. And Heller never spells out what Lee is thinking, though you’ll find hints on the soundtrack brimming with the writer’s favorite songs by Peggy Lee, Blossom Dearie, Jeri Southern and Dinah Washington — female jazz artists who sang the blues that this expert faker lived but couldn’t articulate. It’s McCarthy who lets us see Lee as a woman in full — a role that shows she has what it takes to tackle drama, comedy and all stops in between.